Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious respiratory viral infection that circulates each year in the winter months and can cause serious illness in previously healthy people.
Unlike a cold, flu symptoms develop abruptly one to three days after infection, and can include: tiredness, high fever, chills, headache, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, runny noses, poor appetite, and muscle aches. Most people who get the flu will suffer from mild illness and recover in around four weeks. In some cases, severe illness and complications such as pneumonia can develop, which can result in hospitalisation and even death.
Due to the changes that occur to a woman’s body during pregnancy, pregnant women are at high risk of severe complications of influenza infection. Infection in the third trimester of pregnancy appears to be the most dangerous for the pregnant woman. Complications such as pneumonia are more common, with reports pregnant women are 5 times more likely to be admitted to intensive care than other women who contract influenza. Additionally, influenza causes a 4 times greater likelihood of premature birth. Infants younger than 6 months of age are up to ten times more likely to go to hospital with the flu than older children.
Vaccination is the best way of preventing the flu and any associated illness. Yearly flu vaccination is required as the vaccine changes in anticipation of the types of flu expected to be the most common each winter. The vaccination is 70-90% effective, with only five pregnant women needing to be vaccinated to prevent one case of serious maternal or infant respiratory illness.
The risk-benefit of vaccination during all stages of pregnancy has been carefully evaluated and should be given as early as practicable in each pregnancy. There is extensive evidence demonstrating the safe use of the flu vaccine in pregnant women with no evidence of harmful effects on the developing baby. If not already given, influenza vaccine can be administered concurrently with the whooping cough vaccine, which is recommended for administration early in the third trimester.
Babies whose mothers get a flu vaccine during pregnancy are protected from the moment of delivery and continue to be protected for up to six months after birth. That’s important because babies under six months are too young to get the flu vaccine themselves and the only way they can be protected is if their mother gets vaccinated during pregnancy.
The side effects of a flu vaccine are mild. Up to one in ten adults will experience pain, redness and swelling at the site of injection, while fever and tiredness are less common. These side effects are not more common in pregnant women. It is not possible to actually catch the flu from having a flu injection.
The 2018 quadrivalent seasonal influenza vaccine is recommended and free for pregnant women under the National Immunisation Program and is available from your GP or immunization provider.
As well as being vaccinated there are some simple things that everyone can do to prevent getting the flu or passing it on to others:
- Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, use disposable tissues, and dispose of tissues immediately after use.
- Wash your hands regularly, especially after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
- Keep away from people you know who are sick with the flu.
- Avoid crowded places where there may be other people sick with the flu.
For further information, see list below:
- Vaccinate Against the Flu, Protect your Baby Too.
- Vaccinations in Pregnancy Fact Sheet
- RANZCOG Guidelines – Influenza Vaccination in Pregnancy
Blog Post by Dr Kellie Tathem